New York Times best-selling author, Yang Sze Choo ’92
By Brenda Whately, Director of Alumni Relations
Yang Sze Choo is an award-winning author whose debut novel, The Ghost Bride, published in 2013, is a New York Times best-seller, a Carnegie Medal nominee, a Goodreads Choice Award, an Oprah.com Book of the Week, and is this year, 2019, being adapted for a Netflix drama series production. Yang Sze was in Singapore this month for a signing of her second book The Night Tiger, released in February 2019.
Here is a recent interview with Yang Sze that appeared in the December 2018 alumni magazine, OneNorth.
I believe you were a boarder at UWCSEA from 1988 through 1991, leaving a year early in order to attend Harvard University?
Yes, my dad’s job relocated us every few years. My family had been living in Japan, when my dad got a job posting to Mali, West Africa in 1988. There were no international secondary schools there at the time so I was sent to board at UWCSEA, while my older sister finished her last year of high school in Tokyo.
I still remember the day I got the acceptance to Harvard. They sent a telegram to the housemaster’s office and I was told to go and see him. I was very worried because I thought something might have happened to my parents in Africa. We didn’t have email in those days, so I used to send them aerogrammes. It took a week or more to get a reply. Luckily, it was actually good news—what a relief.
What did you study at Harvard?
I did Social Studies, which is the Harvard equivalent of the PPE (Political Science, Philosophy, and Economics). It was very interesting, though with an intimidating amount of reading. I remember looking at the requirements and feeling panicked at the sheer volume—how was I ever going to finish this?! Then I realised that most people didn’t do all the reading every week anyway...
Did you write while you were at UWCSEA?
No more than any other student although we had creative writing classes, which I always enjoyed. I’d been reading Victorian gothic novels and I remember submitting an attempt for my GCSEs—a dark, rather badly written story about a were- mouse. Strange to think that many years later I’m still writing about shape-shifters and murders occurring in old houses!
What did you do after graduating from university?
I worked in management consulting for a few years, in both Singapore and Boston and then joined a start-up. I really enjoyed working in Singapore. It was a strange, yet liberating feeling to be back in Singapore as a working adult and not a boarder with a curfew.
What inspired you to start your ﬁrst novel?
When I started work, I kept writing short fiction, mostly to amuse myself. I think if you like to write (or do anything creative) you’ll always find a way to do it, partly because it’s fun. I wrote some terrible short stories when I was younger, mostly in the style of various writers I admired. I never thought I’d be able to write a full-length book, but eventually I started a very long novel about an elephant detective. That story didn’t really go anywhere, partly because it was written in first-person-elephant, but one of the side stories in it became The Ghost Bride. I’d been doing research and while looking up some old microfiche newspapers, I came upon a brief mention about “the decline of spirit marriages amongst the Chinese”. It took me a few minutes to work that one out, but I realised that they were talking about the marriage to the dead, which I’d previously heard about from relatives. That was really interesting, and much easier to write about than pachyderm detectives. In my mind, I had a picture of a girl sitting in the darkness with an oil lamp, talking about how her father had just suggested she become a ghost bride. I sat down and wrote it just as it was, and that became the first chapter of the book.
How did you feel when your ﬁrst novel, The Ghost Bride became a New York Times bestseller?
It was a lovely surprise. I was very grateful to be published at all, and having looked up statistics for debut novelists, figured that I’d be lucky if I sold a couple of thousand books. I really have to thank my literary agent for doing such a wonderful job selling the book, and my publisher for believing in it. I think fiction is an emotional connection for each individual. There are some books that you love, and others not so much, so it’s rather like a lottery.
What inspired your second novel, The Night Tiger?
I’ve always been fascinated by the black and white colonial houses in Malaysia and Singapore, left behind by the British. Many of the ones I saw when I was younger in Malaysia were quite run down and subsequently demolished, but there was something so melancholy and yet glamorous about them. The Night Tiger came out of the secrets I imagined hidden in those houses together with many of my favourite obsessions: Chinese dancehall girls, twins, tigers who turn into men, a train that takes you to the world of the dead. And of course, lots of tigers (man-eating and shape-shifting).
Can you describe your writing process? I believe it involves a lot of dark chocolate?
I like to write sitting on the floor, at a low table. That’s probably a habit from spending part of my childhood in Japan. Also, if you sit on the floor it’s much easier to roll around in despair when things aren’t going quite right! But generally, I tend to write without planning, following the story as it unfurls in my mind. I don’t think this is a particularly good way to do it. I have writer friends who outline the whole novel, so they know what happens in which chapter, but I find it hard to plan like that. On good days, writing by the seat of one’s pants can be quite exciting. On bad days, when I’ve no idea what’s happening next, I eat chocolate. Confession: Actually, I eat chocolate all the time, on both good and bad writing days.
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